By JOHN McCALLUM
Fans at Saturday’s football game with Eastern Washington University and North Dakota got to experience something not usually seen at local college games.
In the third quarter North Dakota linebacker Derrick Goard was involved in a play near Eastern’s goal line that left him lying prone and unmoving on the field. Fans watched as people gathered around him, first trainers and teammates and the longer he lay on the red turf, emergency medical personnel.
Goard was eventually strapped to a stretcher, secured and immobilized to prevent further injury, placed in an ambulance and transported to a local hospital. While he was on the ground, upon realizing the injury was more severe than thought, Eastern players knelt on one knee or directed their attention along with Goard’s teammates to where he lay, and as he was raised, players from both teams gathered around to wish him well as fans applauded in salute.
Contrast that reaction with what happened the next day in Kansas City. In the Chiefs’ game with the Baltimore Ravens, KC quarterback Matt Cassell was sandwiched between pass rushers Paul Kruger and Haloti Ngata, knocked to the ground and eventually from the game with a head injury.
As Cassell was led from the field, Chiefs fans cheered in what Kansas City Star sportswriter Randy Covitz wrote was “apparently for getting hurt and having to exit the game.” Cassell has been under fire and criticized by Chiefs fans for three years for what is normal fan derision in the NFL – the perception of being over priced and under performing.
Whether fans actually were cheering Cassell’s misfortune is debated, but for Chiefs’ tackle Eric Winston, the incident invoked outrage.
“We are athletes. We are not gladiators,” Winston said in the Star’s story. “This isn’t the Roman Colisseum. People pay their hard-earned money to come here. I believe they can boo, they can cheer, and they can do whatever they want. But when you cheer somebody getting knocked out, I don’t care who it is, and it just so happened to be Matt Cassell, it’s sickening.”
Agreed, but in a way, there lies another difference between the professional and, we’ll use the word amateur for now, game of football. Because in a sense, Winston is wrong.
While it may not involve swords, shields, axes and maces, professional football is the modern equivalent of what used to transpire 2,000 years ago in Rome. In fact, I remember watching an NFL Films piece once in which the narrator referred to football players as “modern day gladiators.”
That doesn’t legitimize what KC fans did, if cheering Cassell’s loss was indeed the case. But there’s a different sense of ownership in pro football than in the college game. Fans expect more, and they take it out when they don’t feel they are getting what they paid to see – success.
Contrast that with college football, still an amateur sport although an argument can be made it is becoming less so at the major college level – and by major college I mean Alabama, Michigan, USC, Oklahoma, Ohio State, LSU and other regular BCS title contenders.
Sportsmanship still prevails, not only among players as it also does in the NFL, but among the fans, or at least I hope so. While Goard lay on the field, the happy Eagle fans were attentive for the most part. At one point, one yelled “Turn the music off,” a reference to quieter, less rowdy tunes being played over the PA system during the interlude.
I don’t have any issue with music being played. Doing so under those circumstances likely helped keep a difficult situation from becoming awkward and more uncomfortable than it already was.
Fortunately, Goard is OK. In an email, North Dakota associate director for media relations Ryan Powell said the junior walked out of the hospital and onto the plane with his teammates for the return home. And while Powell didn’t disclose the nature of Goard’s injury, he did say he was practicing with the team Tuesday.
The game of football has come under scrutiny lately. Without a doubt it’s a violent game that can lead to serious injury, injury that can affect a player for life if not treated properly.
Fortunately more attention is being paid to injuries today than in the past so as to prevent lasting physical problems. But the game is violent, and the difference between the professional and amateur game is striking – not only on the field but also in the stands.
John McCallum can be reached at email@example.com.